remembering plants we’ve loved (and lost), with ken druse

remembering plants we’ve loved (and lost), with ken druse

the original Heronswood Nursery near Seattle, which has been closed about 15 years. No plant, just a label. I found three such lonely turquoise labels that day, as I do each spring, reminders of plants I’ve loved and lost.

Yes, plants die, even in the care of experienced gardeners (and others just need to be gotten rid of). Plants we’ve known, but no longer grow for one reason or the other, is the subject today of a conversation with my friend, Ken Druse.

Ken needs no introduction except to say he’s the author and photographer of 20 garden books, including most recently “The Scentual Garden,” about S-C-E-N-T. He joined me via Skype to talk about all the plants we’ve loved before (including Phlomis russeliana, above; photo from Wikipedia). Plus: Tell us in comments at the bottom of the page what plants broke your heart, and that you miss.

Read along as you listen to the June 2, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

plants we knew, and loved, with ken druse

Margaret Roach: Hi, Ken.

Ken Druse: That should be a song, don’t you think? “All the plants I’ve loved before.”

Margaret: Funny you should mention that, and we’re going to play a little clip from our theme song that Willie Nelson was so kind to record with Julio Iglesias for this episode, just for a giggle.

Ken: [Laughter.] Oh, that’s perfect. That’s exactly how I feel. In your introduction you were talking about just turquoise labels?

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah.

Ken: There’s so many labels and, I mean, I can’t even talk about it. And Plant Delights Nursery, for example. I think that half of the herbaceous plants I’ve planted or more have died. I have one Oriental poppy and I’ve probably tried to grow, I don’t know, seven, 10 Oriental poppies. In those days we were so intrigued with the latest thing, the newest thing, the untried-and-true thing. A lot of things that we lost weren’t going to be good garden plants, but some of them were. But a lot of them weren’t.

Margaret: Right. And some of them just weren’t tested yet in our areas and so on, and so forth, but we gave it a go. We stretched; we pushed the limits, and gave it a go.

Ken: Just think if we had that money back.

Margaret: [Laughter.] But we had the experience. We got the memories, hon. I remember going to the garden of John Fairey, who died recently, a great gardener in Texas. His garden has been open to the public for many, many years. It was called Peckerwood and now it’s called the John Fairey Garden in honor of him. There were no plants in this one area of this one bed, and it was quite prominent, but there was this aggregation of labels all stuck in the ground-

Ken: [Laughter.]

Margaret: …like soldiers tight together, like a pincushion, but giant. It was hilarious, and it was all the plants that were gone. It was the memory of those plants. It was a graveyard. [Laughter.]

Ken: I used to call mine a mouse graveyard, because then the white labels all lined up looked like little tombstones.

Margaret: Let’s talk about some of them. Actually, you know what? Should I do a poetic reading since we’ve already had some music, should I do a poetic reading?

Ken: This is my favorite poem, I think, ever.

Margaret: It is. It’s by the great Geoffrey B. Charlesworth, also sadly departed, a great gardener. He actually had a garden quite near mine that I visited, that I was lucky enough to visit. He was a leader in the North American Rock Garden Society. Did you ever meet him?

Ken: Yes. Yes, I did.

Margaret: He was wonderful. He wrote this poem called “Why Did My Plant Die?” You’re already laughing.

Ken: [Laughter.] Maybe it’s because you trod on it.

Margaret: Yeah. So, here’s how it goes:

Why Did My Plant Die?

By Geoffrey B. Charlesworth

You walked too close. You trod on it.

You dropped a piece of sod on it.

You hoed it down. You weeded it.

You planted it the wrong way up.

You grew it in a yogurt cup

But you forgot to make a hole;

The soggy compost took its toll.

September storm. November drought.

It heaved in March, the roots popped out.

You watered it with herbicide.

You scattered bonemeal far and wide.

Attracting local omnivores,

Who ate your plant and stayed for more.

You left it baking in the sun

While you departed at a run

To find a spade, perhaps a trowel,

Meanwhile the plant threw in the towel.

You planted it with crown too high;

The soil washed off, that explains why.

Too high pH. It hated lime.

Alas it needs a gentler clime.

You left the root ball wrapped in plastic.

You broke the roots. They’re not elastic.

You walked too close. You trod on it.

You dropped a piece of sod on it.

You splashed the plant with mower oil.

You should do something to your soil.

Too rich. Too poor. Such wretched tilth.

Your soil is clay. Your soil is filth.

Your plant was eaten by a slug.

The growing point contained a bug.

These aphids are controlled by ants,

Who milk the juice, it kills the plants.

In early spring your garden’s mud.

You walked around! That’s not much good.

With heat and light you hurried it.

You worried it. You buried it.

The poor plant missed the mountain air:

No heat, no summer muggs up there.

You overfed it 10-10-10.

Forgot to water it again.

You hit it sharply with the hose.

You used a can without a rose.

Perhaps you sprinkled from above.

You should have talked to it with love.

The nursery mailed it without roots.

You killed it with those gardening boots.

You walked too close. You trod on it.

You dropped a piece of sod on it.

Ken: I’m crying.

Margaret: I just loved him. I just loved him. His books were… “The Opinionated Gardener,” was that what his greatest book was?

Ken: I think so.

Margaret: That was the name of it.

Ken: You mentioned rock gardens—rock gardeners, they like to be punished. [Laughter.]

Margaret: They try the hardest plants of all. They have a high death rate.

Ken: The hardest plant. They grew plants from seed and, oh my gosh, I can’t even keep a Dianthus alive more than one year.

Margaret: Right. Yeah. So, let’s-

Ken: So, who’s dead? [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yeah. Killed any plants lately over there, hon?

sold by Tranquil Lake Nursery. Ken’s photo of it, above.]

Margaret: I was thinking about a rose that I grew for many years. It’s a rambler, purple-colored rambler. ‘Veilchenblau’ I believe you say? ‘Veilchenblau’?

Ken: That’s how I say it.

Flower detail above from Wikipedia. And Annie’s Annuals nursery sells ‘Veilchenblau.’]

It was a feature in the flower garden at Wave Hill. That was the first place I had seen it; in New York City. I had gotten it because I was so enchanted by it there. That’s a plant, I don’t know if I killed it. I’m not going to be sure about that one—a distant memory.

Ken: Some things this year are on their way out, and we had a mild winter, but we didn’t have snow. There’s two Robinia, which are black locust, and they’re both dying. They’re not in the same place. I don’t know what it is. We need some plant forensics sometimes, I think.

Margaret: Now, is that Robinia pseudoacacia?

Ken: Yes.

‘Frisia,’ the gold-leafed one, and I tried it several times. I have locust borer in this area that especially loves to use the flowers of goldenrod as well; I find them in late summer and early fall here in the goldenrod fields [above].. But it just tore through that plant Robinia. I couldn’t grow them at all. It’s not even native [in my precise area]. It’s been naturalized, the regular black locust.

Ken: Oh, really?

Margaret: Yeah. It’s not native to this part of the country. It’s moved.

Ken: Oh, but it’s North American.

Margaret: Yes, but not to where I am. It did a little too well as it moved [laughter], and it’s taken over a lot of areas. A lot of people think of it as a weedy tree. But at any rate, the gold-leaf form, the more horticultural kind of garden-y form, it couldn’t stand up to the borer.

High Country Gardens sells it [note: sold out now for spring 2020]. I believe I got my original plants from Well-Sweep Herb Farm nearer to you in New Jersey, which still exists, but no longer sells that plant I don’t think. So that’s one.

Then Crambe nearby it in the front yard, I also had Crambe cordifolia.

Ken: I killed that, too.

Margaret: It’s like a big Brassica kind of a thing and it looks like a giant bouquet of baby’s breath, and when I say giant, I mean many feet across.

Ken: It’s like kale, and then it bolts in this frothy, feathery cloud.

Margaret: Yeah. So why didn’t I keep that thing? I had it for years. Who knows. It probably got run over by all the shrubs growing in. Do you know what I mean?

Ken: You trod on it. You threw a piece of sod on it.

Diphylleia cymosa? [Photo above by Ken Druse.]

Margaret: Oh yes, I have it.

Ken: Oh. I love that plant. It has nice flowers, beautiful umbrella leaves, and very beautiful berries, that I think they’re bluish-

Margaret: They’re blue, yeah.

Ken: …with magenta petioles holding them. The berries are really cool. I wanted to grow that, and I wanted to grow that, and I wanted to grow that. I’m now successful. This is my third year in a new place. So sometimes, it’s the place.

Margaret: I agree.

Ken: Maybe don’t give up if you can replace it, like you’re going to replace your Phlomis, and just try it in a different spot. I thought it wanted wet, and maybe it didn’t. Everywhere here has good drainage, so it’s not that. But now I just have it in sort of a garden bed and everything’s very sandy here. That’s what they always say. They want rich soil that’s fast-draining. [Laughter.] I’ve got sand, which is better than clay for moisture, but now I have my Diphylleia cymosa and it looks like a plant.

Margaret: Yeah. It’s a beautiful bold-leafed creature. It’s gorgeous.

Ken: Does that have a common name?

Margaret: I don’t think so.

Ken: Blue twin leaf or something?

Margaret: No, I don’t have any idea. Bill Noble, formerly of the Garden Conservancy who has a brand new book out, he’s going to be a guest on the show in a couple of weeks. Bill Noble grows it in Vermont, I want to say, beautifully, like incredibly beautifully. We should ask him for the tips on that.

Ken: Well, I thought it was too cold here, so I guess not.

Chameleon plant, or Houttuynia cordataHouttuynia (or however you say it) cordata. I mean, nightmare plant. Horrible, horrible, horrible [detail above].

Ken: Did you plant it? I guess you did because it wasn’t there.

Margaret: Sure. I planted it, because it was “the thing.” It was the plant of the moment at a moment there.

Ken: I didn’t plant it and it’s here.

Margaret: Oh, lucky you. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that.

Ken: Do you have a native plant that’s a thug?

Margaret: Well, hmmm, probably.

Ken: I’ve got Anemone canadensis.

Margaret: Yeah, no, I don’t have that. Oh, interesting. Interesting.

Ken: Well, that can happen.

Margaret: All right. Well, what we’re going to do in closing is we’re going to have Willie and maybe Julio will sing us out [laughter].

Ken: Sounds good.

Margaret: To all the plants I’ve loved to before, that traveled in and out my door.

Ken: Right. Don’t trod it on it.

Margaret: Don’t trod on it. Right. That’s good advice, actually.

Ken: Don’t trod on me.

Margaret: Don’t trod on me. All right, I’ll talk to you soon. Thank you for recalling-

Ken: Thank you, Margaret.

Margaret: … some of our loved ones that we can rekindle.

Ken: Gone, but not forgotten.

Margaret: Not forgotten, indeed. I’ll talk to you soon, O.K.

more about ken’s rhubarb question

rhubarb-upGrowing rhubarb as an annual in the hottest Zones, from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

  • Growing rhubarb, from Minnesota Extension
  • Growing rhubarb, from Tennessee Extension
  • prefer the podcast version of the show?

    iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


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